The grey wardens don’t sound like a very interesting bunch of people. It could well have been the name for John Major’s fan club back in the nineties (membership: his cat, two accountants and the marketing spokesman for the pea industry). However, they’re actually a heroic bunch of fighters and mages in Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), pledged to re-unite the kingdom against an arch-demon as evil and terrible as the world has ever seen. Think Margaret Thatcher, perhaps, or Tony Blair. Maybe even the love-child of both.
This adventure comes freshly bolted from the Bioware stable, the developer of a number of classic party-based RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and more recently dipping into sci-fi with Mass Effect. DAO (almost a very unfortunate acronym) turns back to the traditional fantasy fare, very reminiscent of the likes of the veteran Baldur’s Gate, but with some twists, naturally.
The first noticeable one coming when you plunge and twist your dagger in a foe, retracting it to an accompanying spurt of blood. This is one gory RPG where the party ends up with blood literally splattered all over their armour (and faces) at the close of a fight. It is perhaps a little gratuitous, granted, but it’s still pretty cool when you pause a combat to witness your blade embedded in an enemy’s shoulder, complete with a fountain of gushing blood frozen in mid-air. And it definitely adds grit to the rather dark atmosphere of the game.
And it’s this atmosphere and the story which defines this RPG. The “origins” part of the title refers to the fact that there are six different beginnings to the adventure depending on which race and class you select for the main character. This only represents the first hour or two of the game, but the decisions you make in that initial phase have an impact on events later in the tale. A neat touch on the replayability front.
However, the origins element is just spice, really. DAO stands proud on its story-telling alone. It boasts an intriguing plot, large amounts of background detail and depth, well fleshed out characters, a finely crafted script and some good helpings of humour. Perhaps most important, however, is that this adventure demands you make some difficult – and meaningful – choices.
Here’s an example of the sort of decisions the player is presented with (spoiler alert, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know anything about the plot). At one point you’re faced with a demon possessing a child. You can either kill the child (yikes), or travel to nearby mages to seek help; the problem being the demon could wreak havoc on the town while you’re gone. A further option is that a renegade wizard in the castle dungeon can help – if you didn’t kill him earlier – but that requires the sacrifice of another life in his ritual. The child’s mother is willing to go through with this, but will you let her? And besides, the ritual requires your party’s mage to be transported into a dangerous netherworld to complete a quest alone.
There are lots of pros and cons to weigh up, and whatever you decide, your three other party members will chip in their opinion and disapprove if you take the opposite course. Selecting party members with complementing ethical views is a consideration in keeping your characters happy, or you can always bribe them with gifts to keep them sweet. These inter-party politics definitely add to the game, and hearing folks banter and argue with each other is often quite amusing. It helps that the characters are so well realised.
When the talking’s done, however, DAO is also very much about getting bloody with a two-handed sword. Combat can be approached in two ways. You can constantly pause and plan moves in an almost turn-by-turn style, or opt for a more action oriented approach where you control the main character hacking and slashing in real-time, with the computer controlling the other three adventurers. Or like us, you can mix the two styles, pausing and planning heavily in tough situations, but leaving the CPU to control the others and letting the action flow freely otherwise.
Although letting the AI control the other characters might sound unwise, the game allows you to set up scripts to help direct how they’ll behave in combat. Each adventurer has a number of tactics slots which can specify a behaviour. For example, you can select the parameter “if hit by enemy” for a mage, and then specify the action “cast stun spell at them”. Or if you’re playing the main warrior, you can order the secondary fighter to always assist in attacking your target.
The tactics system isn’t without glitches, though. Sometimes characters just seem to do their own thing, attacking completely the wrong monster despite carefully designed parameters. And at other times they follow the rules but end up doing something annoying. If you’ve told them to drink a health potion at less than a quarter hit-points, and a fight is just ending but they dip a whisker below that threshold, they will of course drink a potion even though it’s a total waste to do so.
Despite the odd flaw, on an overall level the tactics malarkey works reasonably well. However, on the tougher fights – and there are some definite chainmail armour soiling affairs – you’ll need to pause and order everyone about to really stand a chance of winning through. Challenging is good in our book, mind you, and DAO gives you lots of tactical options to tackle the harder enemies aside from swordplay, such as home-made acid bombs and traps.
The only real problem we had with combat was the game’s camera views. It’s possible to play from a third person close-up perspective, or a zoomed out overhead view, but both can be a bit awkward at times. Confined spaces and walls can make switching around characters in third person awkward, and sometimes the overhead view can be a little indistinct in larger scale battles. This isn’t always an issue by any means, but it was the one thorn that consistently niggled us about DAO.